House Judiciary Committee Advances Court Records Access Bill

The Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol are seen in Washington, at sunrise on March 18. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House Judiciary committee advanced a bill Tuesday that could make public access of court records easier to access and free to people who request them. 

The Open Courts Act of 2020 is a bill that would consolidate all U.S. federal court records and require an easily searchable system, planned in coordination with the Administrator of General Services. It largely focuses on Public Access to Court Electronic Records, also known as PACER, which is an electronic system that charges a fee for accessing federal court records.

“The judiciary’s record systems have long lagged behind modern standards of accessibility and openness,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. “Currently, courts’ records systems are decentralized — each of the nearly 200 federal trial, appellate and bankruptcy courts has its own system.”

Nadler said the decentralization effort also involves eliminating fees for viewing each document on electronic services, which “restricts access to justice by increasing the cost of doing the research.” 

Nadler said the PACER paywall would ultimately be eliminated with the bill. 

Committee members also forwarded the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act, to the House floor.

Nadler briefly explained the legislation was created to fill judicial gaps in anti-discrimination law, as some federal courts had rejected interpretations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1974 as prohibiting discrimination based on hair style or texture.

Many members who spoke in support of legislation referenced a 2019 wrestling match in New Jersey, where 16-year-old Andrew Johnson was forced to cut his hair before competing, as an example of a circumstance the legislation aimed to prevent.

Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Arizona, said the bill was a “distraction from pressing national issues,” and redundant. State and federal law already prohibits discrimination based on certain physical features, she said, adding the committee should be addressing other issues like violence and unrest in American cities.

Congressman Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, said the bill was a step in the right direction to forming a more perfect union because of the equality it affords Americans. Richmond said his own hair has been a constant reminder about American inequalities, as people followed him closely in stores to ensure he wasn’t stealing or clutched their bags while passing him on the street.

“This is just about fairness and a lot of times, good people with good intentions hide behind, ‘it’s redundant, it’s unnecessary, yeah, it’s unnecessary if it doesn’t affect you,” Richmond said. “And I’m not by any means saying that it’s intentional and you want this to happen, I just want you to walk a day in other shoes and that’s what this bill does and that’s why it has so much support.”

In a largely bipartisan effort, House Judiciary members also advanced two bills focused on reforming American prisons. One bill, the Protecting the Health and Wellness of Babies and Pregnant Women in Custody Act, would ban the use of restraints on pregnant, incarcerated women.

The bill also limits the amount of time expecting mothers are forced into solitary confinement or other restrictive housing, except as a temporary response to harmful behavior.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., — one of the bill’s sponsors — said an issue with addressing the needs of pregnant women in prisons was the lack of data on their physical and mental health needs. She presented examples of mothers giving birth to their children while in solitary confinement.

“We have learned about women who have complained about stomach pain while they are incarcerated and instead of being treated — and said that they were pregnant — a woman was put in isolation and by herself, alone, she delivered her baby,” Bass said. “There was another example of a woman put in isolation while she was pregnant, she delivered her baby, unfortunately, her baby didn’t survive.”

The One-Stop Shop Community Reentry Program Act of 2020 also advanced to the House floor Monday. The bill, if signed into law by the president, would fill gaps in services offered by the federal government to recently released inmates looking to reintegrate into society by establishing entry centers in local communities. Those facilities would provide job training, assistance with benefits and support from former inmates who have successfully reentered the world themselves.

There appeared to be some contention Tuesday over a bill that would amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to provide grants to local and state law enforcement agencies for the video recording of custodial interrogations. Congressman Kelly Armstrong, a North Dakota Republican, rose to offer an amendment that would have included federal agencies like the FBI in these programs — an idea that Nadler initially said required more work to achieve.

But after a brief five-minute recess, Nadler gaveled the committee back to confirm the lawmakers would postpone the bill’s consideration, “to allow bipartisan discussions” of Armstrong’s amendment. 

After the committee’s third and final break, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said members had an opportunity to discuss the issue in good faith but failed to reach a consensus. She did, however, recognize Armstrong offered the amendment with good intent.

“Unfortunately, there was not enough time to resolve some of the concerns Mr. Armstrong’s amendment may have had,” Jackson Lee said.

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